Jason Hoeung (“Hoong”) came here as a toddler with his family as refugees. His parents were sewers in the fashion industry back home in Cambodia and tried to discourage him from going into the clothing business. They failed. He loved designing and won awards and recognition from the time he was at high school. Finally he launched his own menswear fashion label, 2eros, And he’s just back from displaying his brand in the US where he was invited to open Los Angeles Fashion Week. It was a huge moment for him – and his family.
Escaping the Khmer regime as a toddler left an indelible mark on his life. He breaks down in tears as he recalls his parents’ efforts to bring him and his sister to a new land and a new life. He’s quietly spoken, choosing his words carefully and speaking matter-of-fact. Which makes everything he says all the more poignant.
Coming out as gay was something he waited to do until he’d left home, moved to the city to start his company. Looking back he says his parents were surprisingly supportive, for which he loves them even more. He’s lived at Lansvale, Cabramatta, Bonnyrigg Heights, Casula and Fairfield and though he now lives in the city he’s back here very often and loves the area and the people.
It must’ve been huge for you to open LA Fashion Week.
Yeah, definitely. It's my first fashion show ever and celebrating 10 years in our business. It was a milestone. Being invited to LA Fashion Week was nothing I ever dreamt of. I thought I would never leave Australia for a fashion show but to have our first show in LA was definitely an experience I will remember.
How much of the show were you responsible for?
We came in with the looks and we set up the run-sheet and what sets go when. We chose the music, the hairstyles and the whole look and feel of the show but we were lucky LA Fashion Week helped us plan the staging, helped choose the models, helped us with the music. The atmosphere was great, the models were very encouraging. We had a chat behind the scenes about where the company started and everyone was all for the story, loving it and supporting it.
You were raised in Fairfield but there you are in LA to present an image of Australian guys. What was that image? What was it about Australia you wanted to put on the stage?
Australia to me is a country full of rich cultures. We all came from somewhere, besides the Aboriginals, we all have very strong rich upbringings and together in a country like Australia where we're exposed to not just our own cultures but other cultures. And being lucky enough to grow up in a suburb like Fairfield.
You know my neighbours were completely different to where we're from and to have the luxury to experience other people's cultures, other religions, other stories, it enriches my brand's storytelling. My collection is very eclectic, inspired by a lot of things. The colours are unconventional and when we choose models for the show or for our campaigns we don't choose a face of the ideal international beauty, we choose it on what Australia is, which is a mix of global culture. That's what Australians are, a mix of every masculine beauty we can put out there.
Did you get traction in LA? What sort of comments did you get? What did people take away from your presentation?
I got interviewed by fashion TV and I got interviewed by FNL, an Amazon channel, and they asked me the same questions – how did you select your models? What's your inspiration? How did you come up with all this? I choose our models based on diversity. I requested a diverse range of models because that's what I represent. I didn’t quite get the broad mix I was after but I'm happy what we got was part of what the brand represents. The collection started off as a very clean classic look and we moved into a very vibrant bright mix of colours. Some of the colours you’d probably look at and say I don't think I could put these colours together!
Well, we've got this green, magenta and black in a mix. For a guy to put those colours together you’d probably shudder but when you see it on him it pops out.
Of course the problem is most of the guys you pick are going to look good in whatever you put on them! What about average guys – will they look as good?
It's all about confidence, it's not about what you wear. We offer clothes for guys at different parts of their fashion journey. When we go out we don't have one look – you have your day look, your night look, your glamour look, your resort look, your home look. We try to cater for all of that. So if you're having a day where you don't want to think too much about underwear you go for a more classic look. On a Friday night you feel like you want to meet someone. Same with our swimwear. We've got loud swimwear that says look at me.
Before we're get into products let's go back to Fashion Week. What doors did it open?
Fashion Week has given me the chance to talk about my personal story, not just my brand. It's empowering for those who are from a similar background who started off not with a lot and then tried to get somewhere. I worked hard but I've also learnt a lot along the way. I've been around for 10 years but it wasn't easy and people shouldn’t disregard that. They should learn and be encouraged to keep going because not every story starts great. Some stories start slow.
Your story begins at Lansvale, Cabramatta, Bonnyrigg Heights, Casula, really well-known places around our turf. What are your memories of those places?
At Lansvale I lived across from a park. We weren't well off at all but we made lots of friends and used to run around with no shoes. We had a park right in front of us and I would go across and play. My mum and dad were very motivated and hard-working people who get out there and work all day. My auntie also lived with us at the time. She took care of us when my parents were really busy and she also works to provide for the family. I have a sister, a year younger than me.
What sense of community did you have back then as a youngster?
My family was my community and my school. My family is also a part of the Buddhist community there as well so we attend a lot of the celebrations for Cambodian New Year and `we're also Chinese so we celebrate Chinese New Year too. I was born in Thailand. My parents Meng Huy Hoeung and Nguy Meng Ping have Cambodian Chinese heritage. They migrated to Thailand because of the Khmer war and I was born in a refugee camp along with my sister. We migrated to Australia when I was 2 and they had nothing on their back, no money, no family, The only photos they have now is a grainy photo of our family.
Never take anything for granted, you could lose it any second. Each time I go back to Cambodia they always take me back to the orphanage or the Killing Fields or the slaughterhouse and make sure I understand it wasn't easy. I came with nothing.
What did your parents tell you about being refugees? You were too young at the time to take it all in. You were a refugee, nonetheless.
What things did your parents tell you to help you appreciate where you came from?
They remind me all the time and let me try not to get too emotional. It was troublesome. If you want to see part of what this story is about you can watch The Killing Fields. The story always reinforced the idea never take anything for granted, work hard for what you want, you could lose it any second. Part of that has driven me, to say life's hard, life’s never going to be easy. If you want to do something you like you need to work hard.
Each time I go back to Cambodia, which they encourage me to do, they always take me back to the orphanage or the Killing Fields or the slaughterhouse and make sure I understand it wasn't easy. I came with nothing. I lost my whole . . . my mum lost her whole entire family, she was the only sole survivor. My dad lost half of his family [breaks down] I can't talk of this [weeps].
Let’s move to another question, though related. How did your family feel about Hun Sen coming to Australia recently and threatening Cambodian Australians?
My parents are not big fans of Hun Sen. I never bring it up because they get fired about that. [Weeps]. Sorry. Can we change the subject?
Yes. I'm sorry it's upsetting you. It's an important part of your story. Your parents have clearly built a strong sense of identity into your life. The great Australian way is to ‘get on with it mate, move on’. But that can be dangerous. Unless you accept where you're from, and what your story is, you can't be the full person you're meant to be.
Yeah, that is so right.
Let's continue your story. Why did you have to leave Fairfield?
So I wanted to do fashion and my parents were not really for it because they're in the fashion industry as well. They used to be sewers, and used to sew a lot, to the point where they started their own business with employees. But the fashion trade started to change, a lot of the stuff went to China so sewing wasn't a part of the Australian workforce any more. They had to change business all together and were without work for about a year but somehow dad managed to get back into the fashion trade as QC – quality control – and discovered that the company warehouse wasn't doing QC the right way and he said he could do better. He's done manufacturing and knows what to look for. So he started his own company and his boss gave him work. he became the QC of imports, all the stuff coming into Australia.
So when I wanted to do fashion, he says no, because he knew the fashion trade was fickle and was dying. So I studied graphic design instead. When I finished I got employment in a company doing events. During that time my head's still in clothing and I kept designing stuff still. Back in university I was studying graphic design and entering fashion competitions and actually made it to the finals for our school. My school said well, you're in graphics but all those fashion-design students didn't make it! Marie Claire Fashion Week ran a competition for designing a new way to wear your mobile phone. They designed it and none of their team got into the course but I got in as a graphic designer. But I entered and I got through so I think I’m onto something!
Even back in high school, I designed a backpack and made it and entered it into a competition and I won! It was in the papers! So I thought I like what I'm doing and I think I have a knack for it. I'm getting this message that I'm good – except from my parents who are saying don't do it, you're gonna waste your time, you're not gonna succeed because the industry's dying. But out of goodwill, they didn't want to see me fail.
So I started my brand while I was working at this company. I registered my business, I costed a website, I sourced fabrics here in Austraia, I sourced manufacturers all without asking my parents. I had only three designs, three colours each, and I said dad can I borrow $30,000 . . . ? No! he said. I said look, I planned everything already. No! No! No! I said this is my only risk. The website's up. All I have to pay is yearly hosting fees, the products are already being made. If they don't sell I'm not going to make any more. I just want $30,000. Just give me a kickstart.
Finally, he says I'm going to give you a chance and here it is. With that $30,000 I worked in the next four years to keep increasing without getting paid. I worked full-time and through lunchtime fulfilling orders and at night packing orders, taking it to work the next day, going at lunch break to Australia Post. Doing that every day for four years. And in the fifth year my business started to change and my dad got me to use his warehouse as warehousing so I save costs and now five years later I've got my own business.
Just awesome. Any other reasons you had to get out of Fairfield?
Um, yes, my personal journey. Being where I'm from it's not culturally normal to be gay. And I discovered that early and I didn't feel quite right in the environment I was in. It was the community itself. My parents would say our friend's gay, this is gay. It was weird. They'd talk about that in a not-so-pleasant manner and when you're told that who you are is weird or different you think, yeah, maybe they don't like it. But in hindsight, when I came out they were actually more accepting than I thought they would be.
Did you come out before you left Fairfield?
No, I left Fairfield first and started working in the city, starting my brand.
Easier to come out away from home?
I think so, for myself at least. I needed to discover myself and I needed to feel confident that whatever happens if they decide they don't like who I am then at least I'm on my own. I'm already there. I can afford to live by myself, pay my own way.
Did you worry how school friends may react?
Yeah, so I didn't come out to my high-school friends at all. When I left home all my new friends knew who I was but all the existing friends didn't. I didn't come out to them.
Met them since?
So I think it's pretty obvious now [laughs]. Most of them know. Those who ask I just tell them straight up. It's completely different to five years ago. Now people don't really care as much. Marriage equality has definitely contributed to that. It's helped anyone who's in the closet or anyone who has communities who don't accept who they are.
Easier to be out in Fairfield now?
Yes, but it all depends on your family. Some families are still set in their ways. Once the outer community starts accepting it, it will come to their family.
Once someone in the community champions something that's important and they have someone that has a voice they understand they start listening. Once we step out of our comfort zone and see how our neighbour lives you start to go OK, that's different, but it can work. And I accept it.
South-West Sydney is one of the most multicultural regions in the whole country. You'd expect it to be more accepting?
A lot of cultures here are first-generation immigrants, they're still set within their community but as they broaden and start seeing other people their eyes start to open slowly. Once someone in their community champions something that's important and they have someone that has a voice they understand they start listening. When pockets of people stick together and don't look beyond, things don't change as much. But once we step out of our comfort zone and see how our neighbour lives you start to go OK, that's different, but it can work. And I accept it. Society can get stuck and people don't feel comfortable being different but once they open their eyes that's when opportunity comes.
Australian guys traditionally have not been fashion-conscious about looking good. Stubbies, singlet, thongs. There hasn't been a lot of depth to Aussie men's fashion over the generations. Are we now less self-conscious about looking good?
It's a generation thing, do you think? [laughs] That perception of masculinity has kinda like set in people's mind how a woman should be and how a man should be. Now when society has seen other types of gender it's getting a bit broader, not just a man needs to look like that and a woman needs to look like that.
Colours have always been a problem. From the moment a baby is born it's put into blue or pink and, if we want to be daring, yellow.
Can guys now embrace colour?
Most of them have already. The only ones that don't it's just due to inner fear. People do like colour generally. It's perception. We're scared of what people would think. As soon as we stop thinking about what other people think, we start to explore.
Which age group is more courageous? Younger guys tend to wear clothes like a uniform, not half as courageous as they think they are.
Are older guys braver?
When you get to a certain point in life, yeah! You say I'm not here for you, I'm here for me.
When does that happen?
That's a very good question. When you get to a point where you realise I'm not living for you. Your own internal breakthrough.
When did that happen for you?
When I stopped caring about what other people think about how I design stuff and how I'm doing my business. I started my business at 27. I'm 37 this year. I left home about 24 so about 25, 26 was my breaking point, yeah I'm gay, yeah I like swimwear. I like underwear. Yes, I'm gonna wear colour and I don't care what you think. A lot of guys now wear pink. And I’m loving I your Rafa Nadal tennis shoes with the pink sole! [Thank you!]
Pink is no longer a gender-specific colour. It shows how you are and how you feel for the day. There's a huge change in men's fashion now. Your colour palette it's not like it was 10 years ago. Colours or prints would pigeon-hole you. Now, the louder you are, or the more extravagant you are, it doesn't mean you're this or that, it just means you’re creative or you're energetic . . . it's a different playing field.
Same for straight guys?
Totally. If you talk about generation now, the millennials, there are no distinctions any more. The line is completely gone. But the older guys have preference for certain fits – length on shorts is a big issue for them, so if it's too short they might not go for that; if it's too long some might prefer it, some don't. Older men now are more open to experimenting with a lot more diversity but I find younger men there's no distinction.
Would you like to see prominent Australian men give a stronger lead? How would you dress our PM?
Malcolm Turnbull has a great refined style that's very corporate. And people don't resonate with him because they don't see his personality.
He has to be formal and dignified but how would you warm him up? He looks like he's running a corporation.
Right. He should choose colours that represent his personality. Ian, you're wearing this pink chequered shirt because you come across as easygoing, comforting, warm – you choose certain styles because that's how you feel or what you want to put forward. He obviously wants to put a stern face to the community. If he wanted to warm up he could afford to relax his look a little.
How would you do that? Change the colour of his tie? His shirt?
Well, does he need to wear a suit at every press meeting? He could be relaxed, look like he sometimes goes to the beach. Lots of politicians when they go overseas try to wear something related to their culture – he could apply that to the rest of Australia. Relax himself a bit – he could dress to the level of the community, he doesn't have to sit above everybody. Tony Abbott's great. People understood him.
But those blue ties?!
[Laughs] Yes! But he has personality. You like Tony Abbott or you hate Tony Abbott. But you know where he stood with everything! And his Speedos were really front and centre and he's that kind of guy. you know. He dares to eat a raw onion. You got him, you know? But if you're listening Tony we can get you a nicer pair of Speedos!
You've come this far at 37 – where will you be at 47?
Oh, another 10 years! We want to be the Australian hub for men's apparel, men's lifestyle brand, so we want to cover not just swimwear and underwear but lifestyle-wear or day-wear, we want to get into body products. We want to be Australia's hub for that.
Where's the Australian man going to be in 10 years' time? What sort of a bloke will he be?
An all-rounded bloke. Australians have a drive for travel and for taking care of themselves. You can see that in current trends. There's a whole heap of up-and-coming Australian skincare range. One of our friends LQD liquid have been the driving force, they're doing really well overseas in Bloomingdale's. Australian men are taking care of themselves.
What has to change in Australian men in the next 10 years?
The Australian man is very diverse. You need to have a sense of yourself and once you know who you are you can work from there. If you're talking about styling, style is very personal and once you start expressing yourself you know the right look for you. Trends are coming and going and we do some trends-focused styles but we also do a lot of timeless styles. We release new colours all the time. Once you understand your sense of style, choosing colours, choosing fabrics, choosing fits becomes second nature. You don't even have to think about it, you look at it, yep, that's my style.
But once you accept who you are you accept your personal emotions and you let all your fears go you will definitely come to the forefront in anything – in your work, in your imagery, in your styling, in your presentation. Once you stop yourself from being yourself and you put up a facade . . . society's trying to make you follow a trend like a facade and if that trend excites you that's great but if it doesn't excite you and you're just using it as a facade it will lock you down. The more vibrant, and more out there, the more genuine you are, people relate to you, people like you, people want to be around you. That facade is not you and that's where the new man is coming. He's going to be more individual.